‘A basic question’: Lenin glosses the April Theses
V.I. Lenin in 1920, drawing by Isaak Brodsky
By Lars Lih
September 1, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary blog — In April 1917, Lenin was churning out articles for Pravda at an alarming rate. One such article is “A Basic Question,” written on April 20 and published the next day. This article later made its way into Lenin’s collected works, where it is easily available today. It is in no way a hidden or undiscovered document—and yet, in the context of a new look at the events of spring 1917, “A Basic Question” becomes a remarkable and revealing document. I have therefore newly translated it and provided a commentary.
Officially, this article is a rejoinder to a critique of the April Theses by Georgy Plekhanov that was published on April 20 (a translation of Plekhanov’s article will be found in the Appendix). In reality, Lenin is less interested in refuting Plekhanov than in reassuring Bolshevik praktiki (the mid-level activists who did the hands-on “practical” work of the party). Sergei Bagdatev was a Bolshevik praktik who was also an ardent advocate of soviet power; in Part 4 of this series, we heard him express his misgivings that some aspects of Lenin’s April Theses might hamper the drive to establish soviet power. His underlying worry was about the class basis of the ongoing revolution: was Lenin really saying that we don’t need the peasant as an ally, as implied by the April Theses and various other comments? In “A Basic Question,” Lenin emphatically responded to this worry: no, that isn’t what I meant—that isn’t what I meant at all.
Plekhanov on Lenin’s ‘ravings’
Back in the 1880s, Plekhanov was a pioneer in popularizing Marx’s message and applying it to Russian conditions, thus earning the title of “the father of Russian Marxism.” Since then, he had always played a significant role in Russian Social Democracy, although one that was often far from constructive. During the war, he became an ardent defensist of a pronounced anti-German bent. After the February revolution, he returned to Russia only a few days before Lenin and promptly founded a newspaper—Edinstvo or Unity—that took up a position on the extreme right of the socialist spectrum.
When Lenin arrived in Russia, he first read out his Theses at a meeting of Social Democratic activists; a few days later, on April 7, they were published in Pravda. In this article , after presenting the Theses, Lenin snapped at Plekhanov for describing his arrival speech as “raving.” In response, Plekhanov pointed out that it was not he but a reporter from Edinstvo who had been present at the speech—nevertheless, now that he had read the Theses, he himself was perfectly willing to endorse the characterization. A raving madman has no sense of time or place; similarly, Lenin’s program had no connection with Russia in 1917, but only with some abstract never-never-land where socialism was already objectively possible. Plekhanov then embarked on an extensive refutation of the Theses.
Plekhanov’s analysis is almost exclusively focused on the first Thesis, the one that rejects “revolutionary defencism.” Much of his critique is based on a clear misinterpretation—although, to be fair, Plekhanov’s reading might fit Lenin’s words well enough if you knew nothing at all about his general views. Plekhanov argues that Lenin assigns all blame for the present war to Russia’s imperialism and for this reason portrays Germany as an innocent victim. According to Lenin (says Plekhanov), we should all humbly apologize to Germany.
In the same opening Thesis, Lenin demands that “a complete break be effected in actual fact with all capitalist interests.” Plekhanov seizes on these words to demonstrate that Lenin must be thinking of full socialism, since he denies that the capitalists have any legitimate interests. Plekhanov also quotes Thesis 8: “It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the supervision [kontrol] of the Soviets of Worker Deputies.” This thesis, he says, represents Lenin’s sop to his Marxist conscience, especially since state kontrol of production and distribution is perfectly compatible with capitalism, as the present war had shown.
Plekhanov now moves in for the kill: if Lenin’s rejection of all capitalist interests only makes sense under full socialism, and if the objective conditions for socialism are not present, then Lenin is no more than an anarchist who rejects the basic principles of Marxism—the same basic principles that earlier, when he was still a Marxist, he defended with energy. To illustrate his point about anarchism, Plekhanov looks back to the first congress of the International in 1889. At this congress, the anarchists called for instant socialist revolution and dismissed the Marxists as “opportunists” who were content with measly reforms like the 8-hour day. But the Marxists decisively rejected the profoundly unrealistic utopianism of the anarchists—just as the Russian workers should reject Lenin today.
At this point, Plekhanov makes a crucial move in his argument: if the objective conditions for socialism are not present, then there also exists no rationale for a “seizure” of the political vlast by the workers and poor peasants:
Socialist politics, based on the teachings of Marx, has of course its logic. If capitalism has not yet attained in any given country its highest point—the point at which it becomes an obstacle for the further development of productive forces—then it is absurd to summon the workers, both urban and rural, and the poorest part of the peasants to overthrow it. If it is absurd to summon the elements just named to overthrow capitalism, then it is no less absurd to summon them to the seizure of the political vlast.
In support of this conclusion, Plekhanov cites the famous epigram by Engels: there is no greater tragedy for a class to take power before its time. Plekhanov seems almost to be saying that a majority of the population should not have sovereignty until the objective conditions for socialism are present.
A week after the appearance of this article, Plekhanov repeated the gist of his argument in a short article entitled “To the Students.” Since this article is the official inspiration for “A Basic Question,” I have provided a translation in the Appendix. As before, Plekhanov condemns those “who call the Russian toiling masses to the seizure of the political vlast, since this can only make sense given the presence of the objective conditions needed for social revolution.” In this formulation, Plekhanov uses a term that clearly refers to a majority of the population: “the toilers” or “toiling masses” (trudiashchiesia). This rather ungainly term had a definite meaning in Russian Social Democratic discourse and referred to everybody who lived by physical labor, that is, workers, peasants, and urban “petty bourgeoisie.” Thus it was essentially synonymous with narod, the people.
Before proceeding, we can draw a few lessons just from looking at Plekhanov’s critique. First, Plekhanov’s instant condemnation of the April Theses was at least partly based on a clear misunderstanding, since Lenin obviously did not believe that Russia was solely responsible for the war. But when we read in secondary accounts that Plekhanov and others rejected the Theses as the ravings of a madman, the assumption seems to be that these critics were responding to Lenin’s actual argument, which they immediately and accurately understood.
Second, Plekhanov moves very quickly from high-falutin’ assertions about “the objective conditions of socialism” to his desired political conclusion of “support in solidarity” for the actually existing Provisional Government. But of course, there are a myriad of motivations for opposing and even overthrowing the government led by Prince Lvov that had nothing to do with “overthrowing capitalism.” Long before Lenin’s April Theses, Pravda had asserted that the Provisional Government could not satisfy the essential needs of the workers and peasants, and therefore the “full satisfaction of their demands is possible only when full and complete vlast [vsia polnota vlasti] is in their own hands” (editorial of 14 March, drafted by Kamenev).
Third, isn’t it fair to say that Plekhanov’s interpretation is also the prevailing interpretation today? According to Plekhanov, Lenin is calling for a seizure of political power by the “toiling masses” that can only be justified by socialist revolution. He therefore needed to trash earlier Bolshevik doctrine and replace it with an anti-Marxist “anarchism.” In Plekhanov’s version of the rearming narrative, of course, Lenin’s rearming of the party is profoundly to be regretted.
Plekhanov refuted Lenin by means of the following syllogism:
- Major Premise: The seizure of political power by the toiling masses is only justifiable if the objective conditions for socialism are present.
- Minor Premise: the objective conditions for socialism are not present in Russia in 1917.
- Conclusion: Lenin’s call for a seizure of political power by the toiling masses is not justifiable, but rather “an insane and extremely harmful attempt to sow anarchistic confusion and division within the Russian Land.”
Let us now ask ourselves: how will Lenin respond to this argument? A number of possibilities suggest themselves. He might reject Plekhanov’s assertion about the absence of the objective conditions for socialism in Russia in 1917. Or, he might deny that socialism had to wait until objective conditions are present. In both these cases, Lenin would indeed be rearming the party with a vengeance. At the cost of rejecting the basic tenets of so-called “Second International Marxism” in general and Old Bolshevism in particular, he would then be able to proclaim the socialist character of the revolution.
Alternatively, Lenin could assert that Plekhanov completely misunderstood his argument: Lenin called for soviet power, not because he assumed the socialist character of the revolution, but simply because the seizure of political power by the toiling masses is justified and even mandated by basic democratic principles. In this case, there is no radical break either with Old Bolshevism or international “revolutionary Social Democracy” and thus no need to rearm the party.
Having considered these different possibilities, let us turn to “A Basic Question” and observe how Lenin proceeds.
Lenin begins by asking why Plekhanov fixates on the anarchist/Marxist clash in 1889 and ignores the Basel Manifesto passed unanimously by an emergency congress of the Second International that was convened in 1912 to protest war. The Manifesto mandated proletarian revolution if war should break out—at least, that’s how the Bolsheviks read it. I have written elsewhere of the fundamental importance of the Basel Manifesto to Bolshevism from 1912 to 1917. For our present purposes, we note that Lenin is far from rejecting “Second International Marxism”—rather, he is arguing that the necessary objective conditions for socialist revolution are present—in Western Europe, as shown by an authoritative statement by the highest body of the Second International.
Lenin then goes on to say in essence: of course I’m not proposing socialism in Russia at the present time! Russian peasants are small owners; they are therefore not socialists; they constitute the majority of the country; socialism cannot be enforced against the majority. To suggest otherwise would truly be raving. But (continues Lenin) does this state of affairs have anything to do with the “basic question” now facing Russia: who should have the political vlast? Of course not! We Bolsheviks are fighting for full democracy, and democracy—even as defined by the wretches at Rech, the newspaper of the liberal Kadet party and its leader Paul Miliukov—means majority rule, does it not?
Lenin then begins to expound his own new idea of “steps toward socialism.” To do this, he makes a distinction between two sections of the narod: the socialist masses (proletarian and semi-proletarian) and the non-socialist masses (the “toiling masses” proper). The mission of the socialist proletariat to provide political leadership for the whole narod had always been the heart of Old Bolshevism’s hegemony scenario. This mission is the main motivation Lenin gives here for his “steps toward socialism”: these measures will “enhance the role, significance, and influence upon the population especially by the city workers, as the vanguard of the proletarians and semi-proletarians of town and country.”
To illustrate his vision of the relation between the ongoing revolution and socialist transformation, Lenin points to three examples of the kind of measure he has in mind: nationalization of the land, merger of all local banks into one national bank, creation of a compulsory sugar syndicate. According to Lenin, these measures all have the following features in common:
- They are not socialist measures per se, but in fact completely compatible with capitalism (as Bagdatev put it, these measures are part of the minimum program). “Would [land nationalization] be a socialist revolution? No. It is still a bourgeois revolution.” Looking ahead, Lenin envisions these measures carried out by a “democratic peasant state.”
- These are not wild, utopian measures put forward by an “anarchist” out of touch with reality. They have long been advocated by moderate socialists and non-socialists alike. Indeed, the tsarist government itself resorted to sugar syndicates.
- These measures can and will be supported by the peasantry. That is, Lenin rejects any misapprehension that his “steps toward socialism” implies a break with the peasants.
- Such measures will increase the leadership potential of the socialist proletariat among the narod. Lenin shows that he is far from abandoning the prewar hegemony scenario of class leadership.
Lenin ends his article by invoking the traditional Bolshevik scenario of international revolution: a “genuine transition to socialism” will be possible in Russia after (and only after) a socialist revolution in Europe.
To sum up: like most historians today, Plekhanov pictured the April Theses as a radical break with Marxism as he understood it and as Lenin himself had understood it in the past. Lenin is at pains to refute this picture: his vision of steps toward socialism is not radical, but rather consistent with international “revolutionary Social Democracy,” with Old Bolshevism’s hegemony scenario, and with common sense.
Lenin’s target audience: Bolshevik praktiki
So far, I have analyzed Lenin’s article more or less according to its official self-description as a refutation of Plekhanov. Yet, when we set this article against the backdrop of the discussion going in Bolshevik circles during the two April conferences (city and all-Russian), we will easily see that the real aim of his article is to reassure Bolshevik praktiki and to allay their misgivings about the April Theses.
Plekhanov’s first extensive analysis of the April Theses was published in a newspaper article dated April 9-12. Lenin did not bother to respond. On April 20, Plekhanov issued a short squib that repeated a central charge from his earlier analysis. This time Lenin hit back with a major statement. Why? The timing gives us the answer. The Petrograd city conference was in session (the conference ran from April 14 to April 22). Almost immediately afterward, an all-Russian party conference was scheduled to begin its work; its dates are April 24 through 29.
By April 20, Lenin had heard from Petrograd activists such as Bagdatev about their misgivings, and he knew he was likely to hear more of the same from Bolsheviks further afield at the upcoming conference. He therefore decided (we may assume) to seize the opportunity presented by Plekhanov’s squib in order to clarify his stand and avoid unnecessary confusion. Somewhere, perhaps in What is To be Done?, Lenin states his preference for setting forth his views in attack mode, so that he would often wait until a suitable target presented itself. By yelling at Plekhanov, Lenin could avoid being either too offensive or too defensive with his own followers. The subtext was: Plekhanov has clearly misinterpreted my views—don’t you do the same!
This subtext target accounts for the large parts of Lenin’s article that have little direct connection with anything said by Plekhanov. When Plekhanov talked about objective conditions, for example, he had in mind principally the level of productive forces, and his articles attacking Lenin say nothing about the peasants. In contrast, Lenin’s article talks about the peasants more or less from beginning to end.
As we have seen in Part 4 of this series, the central misgiving of Lenin’s friendly Bolshevik critics was the status of the peasant ally. We can thus decode Lenin’s message to his party comrades as follows: are you worried that I am unaware that the current revolution, whatever label we choose to give it, embodies our longstanding Bolshevik vision of the proletariat leading the peasant majority? Don’t be worried—I am perfectly aware that Russia is a peasant country. I certainly do not argue that we have to win the peasants over to “our point of view”—that is, wait until they are committed socialists—before fighting for soviet power.
The activists further tell me they are not sure whether my enthusiasm for “steps toward socialism” means that I reject the need for peasant allies. Again, don’t be worried! The measures I have in mind are bound to appeal to the peasants—in fact, they will also strengthen the class leadership that is the heart of our shared Bolshevik vision.
To sum up: the praktiki asked for clarification, and Lenin’s “A Basic Question” was aimed at providing exactly that.
Bukharin on ‘A basic question’
When I drafted this commentary on Lenin’s article, I was unaware of any other writer who had given any attention to it. As it turns out, in 1924 Nikolai Bukharin quoted it at length and drew essentially the same conclusions as I have. More than any other Bolshevik leader, Bukharin made it his business to set out the basic ideological rationale of the Bolshevik party/state—its constitutional principles, one might say. This particular article is one of his many mid-twenties polemical attacks on the party opposition, yet we can easily abstract from these attacks in order to bring out crucial aspects of the party’s deeply-felt image.
Relevant to the present commentary and to my whole series on “All Power to the Soviets!” are the following conclusions: the hegemony scenario arising out of the 1905 revolution was a central part of the Bolshevik outlook before, during and after the revolution of 1917. “A Basic Question” is an application of hegemony to the political dynamics of 1917. There is a direct line between the outlook expressed in this article and Lenin’s final articles from early 1923, particularly “On Revolution.” Bukharin insists on the continuity of outlook from the 1905 revolution on:
The arguments among us [Russian Social Democrats before the war], as is known, boiled down to a considerable degree to the question of the worker-peasant bloc, of an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, and of the hegemony of the proletariat in this “alliance” or “bloc.” Now, in the eighth year of our revolution and our dictatorship, we clearly see the enormity of this problem, which for the first time was given clear foundations by Vladimir Ilich [Lenin] and which later became one of the cornerstones both of the theoretical and practical structure of Bolshevism. Only at the present time has this question come up in all its enormous dimensions.
Bukharin uses “leadership” (rukovodstvo) as a synonym for “hegemony.” Owing to the constraints of the Lenin cult, Bukharin cannot be explicit about Kautsky’s role in the elaboration of the hegemony scenario (see No. 2 in the present series) and therefore over-emphasizes Lenin’s originality. Nevertheless, Bukharin shows the roots of NEP-era policies in the older debates of Russian Social Democracy. Bukharin’s banner-word for NEP was the “link” or smychka between peasant and worker, but in this article, he ties this word and this concept firmly to the hegemony scenario central to Bolshevism before, during and after the revolution. Bukharin also points to the world-wide dimension of hegemony: the leadership of the European proletariat vis-à-vis the peasantry in the colonies.
The hegemony scenario was central to three distinct stages of the revolution (Bukharin’s emphasis throughout):
Prior to the seizure of power, the working class must have the support of the peasantry in the struggle against the capitalists and landlords.
After the seizure of power, the proletariat must secure for itself the support of a considerable section of the peasantry in the Civil War, right up to the moment when the proletarian dictatorship has been consolidated.
And after that? Can we really limit ourselves to regarding the peasantry only as cannon-fodder in the fight against the capitalists and the large landlords? No. Once and for all, we must understand the full logic of this ‘no’. After its victory, the proletariat must at all costs live side by side with the peasantry, for the peasantry represents the majority of the population, with great economic and social weight. … It must be realized that the proletariat has no choice in this. It is compelled, as it builds socialism, to carry the peasantry with it. The proletariat must learn to do this, for unless it does so, it will not be able to maintain its rule.
To document his point that hegemony was still operative after the February revolution, Bukharin, like ourselves, turned to the article “A Basic Question.” After giving a long citation (the passage is marked with asterisks in the appendix), he comments:
Let’s turn our attention to Lenin’s approach to the question. He asks constantly: what is “the peasant” saying? This is no accident. On the contrary, this reveals a great revolutionary clear-headedness that is typical of the proletarian leader [vozhd]. [The Bolsheviks must act] so that they will not to be severed from the peasant base, so that they can rely on gradual measures to pull the muzhik along behind the working class.
For Lenin did not see the peasantry as an inevitable foe intent on smashing all our skulls, but as a potential ally who will sometimes grumble and will now and then cause the working class some unpleasantness, but who must potentially be brought around to the proletarian cause so that it is one of the component forces in our struggle for a proletarian economic regime.
Bukharin finds the same logic in the scenario for the future sketched out by Lenin in his final articles: “if we keep to the line of the worker-peasant bloc, we will endure. Just don’t be foolish, just don’t make big mistakes, just take the greatest care on this very point, just don’t shout unnecessarily at the muzhik, and pursue a policy that will preserve the proletariat’s role as leader.”
The world would be a better place if the attention now given to Lenin’s epigrammatic, enigmatic April Theses was transferred to the straightforward and plain-spoken gloss found in “A Basic Question.” Lenin’s article from mid-April 1917 makes three big points. First, soviet power—the “seizure of the political vlast by the toiling masses”—is justified and indeed mandated by basic democratic principles. Second, a crucial political goal is expanding as much as possible “the role, significance, and influence upon the population especially by the city workers, as the vanguard of the proletarians and semi-proletarians of town and country.” Third, certain specific policy measures are recommended on the grounds that they will obtain majority peasant support as well as increase the leadership potential of the proletariat.
Earlier we observed that if Lenin felt compelled to proclaim the socialist character of the revolution, he had two choices in responding to Plekhanov: he could argue either that the objective conditions for socialist revolution were present in Russia in spring 1917, or that socialist revolution did not depend on objective conditions as understood by earlier Marxists. Lenin made neither argument—instead, he aggressively argued the opposite. Russia’s peasant majority showed that the objective conditions were not present. This circumstance removed socialism from the immediate agenda, since “establishing socialism against the will of the majority” is an absurdity.
Looking back to Old Bolshevism as it took shape during and after the revolution of 1905, “A Basic Question” justifies Mikhail Kalinin’s statement in April that “the method of thinking [in Lenin’s theses] remains an Old Bolshevik one that can cope with the peculiarities of the present revolution.” The logic behind the hegemony scenario of Old Bolshevism was that the socialist proletariat—precisely because of its socialist convictions—was called upon to lead the Russian narod in accomplishing goals that were non-socialist but vitally necessary for historical progress. The constant in this scenario is the idea of class leadership, while the identification of specific policy goals remains open-ended. The policy measures Lenin advocated as steps toward socialism were therefore no break with the logic of the hegemony scenario; as Vladimir Nevsky put it, “Lenin’s position [in the April Theses] was the natural development of the doctrine that he had worked out long ago in the previous periods of the history of our party.”
In 1917, “All Power to the Soviets!” was an effective slogan because soviet power was the means to so many diverse ends: traditional revolutionary aims such as confiscation of gentry land; a democratic peace; effective response to the national economic crisis; protecting revolutionary institutions against attack; and finally—more and more prominent as the year progress—creating a “tough-minded vlast” that could effectively govern the country. Among these aims, the specific measures that Lenin saw as steps toward socialism did not become a prominent part of the Bolshevik message—they were, so to speak, the fine print backing up the general promise to tackle the economic crisis.
Traditionally, Social Democrats saw the peasants as an obstacle to direct socialist transformation (although a worthy ally in accomplishing the hugely ambitious “minimum program”), since “petty-bourgeois” peasants were deemed unlikely to support socialism. Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” scenario of 1905-07, for example, is based on the assumption that peasant resistance will bring down a socialist regime unless it received help from abroad. Lenin’s “A Basic Question” reflects this standard view of the peasant as only a partial ally—and yet, in hindsight, we can see that it marks a crucial shift in perspective. The emphasis now is not on limitations, but rather on how far forward the proletariat can go with peasant support. This shift in emphasis marked the beginning of some crucial developments in the Bolshevik outlook.
In 1917, Lenin argued that peasants could and would support preliminary steps toward socialism, although rapid progress in genuine socialist transformation in Russia remained dependent on help from the West European proletariat, armed with state power after a revolution. By the end of 1919, the Bolsheviks were starting to wake up and smell the coffee about European revolution: there wasn’t going to be one in the near future. On the other hand, 1919 also saw the Bolsheviks beginning to focus on a long-term partnership with the “middle peasant”—a term barely used in 1917. The social base for socialist construction was thus undergoing a drastic displacement. By the time he wrote his final articles in early 1923, Lenin envisaged a slow but steady progress toward socialism in Russia, even without the help of the European proletariat-in-power, but relying on the support of the Russian peasantry. This final vision can be seen as a natural evolution from original Old Bolshevism’s wager on hegemony, that is, on the socialist proletariat as a leader of the narod. Lenin’s “A Basic Question,” written at a crucial juncture in Bolshevik history, can help us understand the logic of this long-term evolution.
This is the fifth article in a seven-part series. The previous articles can be read here. For explanation of some Russian words found in this article, see “A small glossary for discussion of Bolshevik policy.”
 “On Lenin’s Theses: Why Ravings Can Sometimes be of Interest,” published in Edinstvo, issue of 9-12 April, text taken from Plekhanov, God na Rodine (1921: Paris, J. Povolozky), 1:19-29.
 Note that in the April Theses, Lenin talks about “soviets of worker deputies”—that is, the Theses do not yet reflect the basic political reality of “soviets of worker and soldier deputies” (see Nos. 3 and 4 in the series for further comment).
 “‘A New Era of War and Revolution’: Lenin, Kautsky, Hegel and the Outbreak of World War I,” in Cataclysm 1914: The First World War and the Making of Modern World Politics, ed. Alexander Anievas (Historical Materialism series) (Leiden: Brill, 2014). Pp. 366-412. The Basel Manifesto was reprinted in Pravda in March 1917, prior to Lenin’s arrival.
 “The Theory of Permanent Revolution,” originally published in Pravda, 28 December 1924; a translated text can be found in Trotsky’s Challenge: The “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution, ed. Frederick C. Corney (Brill, 2016), pp. 514-554. I have modified this translation slightly after consulting the original text in Pravda.
 V. Nevskii, Istoriia RKP(b): kratkii ocherk (St. Petersburg: Novyi Promotei: 2009 , 502.